12/14/14 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

Senator Cory Booker, Representative Luis Gutierrez, and Representative Keith Ellison testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on civil rights and the US criminal justice system.

Audio file


Century of Lies

December 14, 2014

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network, which comes to you through the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network and is supported by the generosity of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and of listeners like you.

Find us on the web at drug truth dot net, where you can find past programs and you can subscribe to our podcasts. You can follow me on twitter, where I'm at drug policy facts, and also at doug mcvay. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, be sure to give its page a Like, you can find Drug War Facts on facebook as well, please give it a like and share it with friends.

Now, on with the show.

You may have heard already, Congress came up with a new budget last week. The fiscal year ended on September 30th so they're only a couple of months late. As usual the massive omnibus bill contains a lot of provisions, called riders, which enact policies that Congress could not otherwise put into law. For example the federal ban on needle exchange is in this bill, as well as a provision forbidding use of funds to implement marijuana legalization. On the plus side, the bill contains a rule preventing the Justice Department from interfering with state-legal hemp production programs. There is also a provision that prevents the Justice Department from interfering with state-legal medical marijuana programs in a specific list of states. In spite of those bright spots, this is a very bad bill. At the time of this recording, the Senate is debating the budget. It may pass, though it's not guaranteed. The alternatives would be, at worst, a government shutdown, or at best, a continuing resolution by which agencies continue to be funded at previously-agreed levels and nothing changes.

While the attention of the public has been focused on the budget debate, a lot of other things have been going on in DC. The events in Ferguson Missouri, in New York, in Ohio, and let's face it all over the country have sparked nationwide protests. Even members of Congress have been paying attention. On November 9th, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on the state of civil and human rights in the United States. We're going to listen now to part of that hearing. The subcommittee was chaired by Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. The first panel of witnesses included Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey; Representative Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois; and Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota. Let's give it a listen:

CORY BOOKER: You said very specifically and I want to honor that, that the time for lamentations is past, the time for legislation is, is upon us. And I want to apologize if it seems that I'm going off of that directive, but I will end up right there. This is a very very personal issue for me, this evolution of the United States toward its ideals. Children from Newark, New Jersey to Oakland, California, stand up every day and say the pledge of allegiance, that we are a nation with liberty and justice for all.

But these last few weeks, we've seen tens of thousands of Americans taking to the streets in anguish and rage and frustration. And I agree with Senator Cornyn, that it is too early in many ways to draw conclusions when there's federal investigations still going on on many of those issues, and I appreciate the sensibility of his remarks. But please understand, that the anguish that folks are feeling on the streets, the anguish that has penetrated this body, that's had me pulled aside by Senate pages and many people that we walk by at this body, who do the dignified and important work, yet menial work, who've asked me, please, do something about this.

What is that this they are talking about? I, as many of you know, was raised in a community which my family, in 1969, the year of my birth, was the first black family to integrate this area. My classmates and teammates were all white growing up. My dearest and closest friends now, I feel blessed and privileged that I have people who are like blood to me of all different backgrounds. But I know growing up, our experiences as our parents talked to us about police officers, talked to us about behavior, there was dramatic differences between the exhortations of black parents, Latino parents, and white parents. I remember distinctly my parents lecturing me, with anger in their voice, that I did not have the margin of error when it comes to experimenting with drugs or other behaviors that others have.

And what I want to do right now is put this in context of what you called us to talk about, which is legislation, and put into a context of a horrible history in our country, that history of bias that we are desperately trying to work our way out of. In my lifetime, we have seen something happen that is remarkable in the planet earth, which is the explosion of the American prison system, to the point now where America has five percent of the globe's population but 25 percent of the world's, of humanity's imprisoned people, and by god, we do not have a country that has more criminals, more criminality, more crime-intent people, than China or Russia or India.

And that explosion of criminality has made us see in the last thirty years an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population. Half of those prisoners at the federal level and the overwhelming majority on the national level are nonviolent offenders. Nonviolent, not picking up guns, not beating people in the streets, not assault. We as Americans unlike any other country bear the burden of spending a quarter of a trillion dollars carrying this system.

And the point that is felt in the anguish of staff I talk to here in the Senate and people protesting is not the specifics necessarily of cases, but of the knowledge that we all have that none of my colleagues Republican or Democrats have denied to me, that the system is woefully biased against minorities in our country. The data screams that we all have access to and that we all know, that there's no difference, no difference for example in marijuana usage between blacks and whites in this country, none whatsoever. The last three presidents of the United States admitted to using marijuana and I say for the record one said he did not inhale.

But yet, an African American is about 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana usage than someone who is white. That's a fact. We know we have a criminal justice system that has unconscionable outcomes that do not reflect the highest values that children of every ilk pledge allegiance to, values that we swear oaths to, that we should have what that building across the way says, powerfully written in stone, equal justice under law.

And what do I mean by some of these things that jump up and call to the conscience of this country. We have a nation where African Americans make up thirteen percent of the US population but 40 percent of the imprisoned population. In my state, it's 13 percent and 60 plus percent of the prison population. Nonviolent offenses. That according to the 2012 report for the US Sentencing Commission, from 2007 to 2009, drug sentences for African American men were 13.1 percent longer. That we know that Latino youth today, by the age of 23, 44 percent of Latino youth will be arrested. 44 percent, most of them for nonviolent offenses.

We know the sad reality for African American men. One in three African American males born today can expect to be incarcerated at some point, unless we make a change. And when you hear about police violence, trust me. I was a mayor of a great American city. It was challenging and complicated, and a constant battle against crime to keep my community safe. These are nuanced issues, we struggled with them in Newark, but we know that right now, there are 6.5 million people, whites, arrested, against about 2.6 million African Americans arrested in the year.

But pro publica, that means blacks and whites, violent crime and nonviolent crime. 6.5 versus 2.6, black to – white to black. But now someone who's African American, according to data quoted by my Republican colleague Rand Paul in Time magazine, are twenty one times more likely to be shot dead by a police officer, African Americans, twenty one more times more likely to be shot dead by a police officer than someone white.

And so I anguish over this fact that my country has been evolving through the dedicated determinate acts of black and white, through slavery, through Jim Crow, but I find myself a Senator at a time that we have this ironic reality, there are more African Americans now in prison, under criminal supervision, prison, jail, probation, parole, than all the slaves in 1850. And so, this is what sears into me as a painful reality, because we as a body, Congress has the power to change this. And the people, the elected leadership that's showing this most clearly is not coming from the federal level, it's actually coming from the states, and remarkably, refreshingly, it's coming from red states.

Red state governors, with their legislatures, are passing legislation that this body should be passing, that is showing clearly that you can deal with this over-incarceration problem through common sense bipartisan legislation. The one example I'll give as I lead to my close is Georgia. Governor Nathan Deal has cut spending on prisons, reduced penalties for nonviolent offenses, and the result of his common sense reforms has been a dramatic reduction in the prison population and guess what? A twenty percent reduction over five years in the number of incarcerated African American men in their state. A twenty percent reduction.

And so, we can say what we want about the details of Staten Island, or Ferguson, but there's a larger issue going on. There's anguish in their heart, from young people working in this institution to cities and neighborhoods and towns all over our country, and the question is, enough of the lamentation, when will there be legislation? And so I conclude with that call, it's a call that has rang through ages of our nation, that we have something so precious.

This week, Jews all across our country will be reading a portion of the Torah that, that has a section that has these words that are written and inscribed from the Torah on the very site where Martin Luther King was killed. I had the privilege recently of watching the movie Selma and seeing blacks and whites joining, hand in hand, Latinos and other Americans in this ideal of America that these issues are not black or white, they are about justice.

They are about America, that people of good conscience, when there's clear and patent treatment being given to one body of Americans and not to another, that there's a call to act, and this idea and this dream, and written on that place, in Memphis, Tennessee, at the site that one of our great Americans, not great black Americans, one of our great Americans died, is the words from the Torah, that call upon us now. Simply these: Here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him, and see what becomes of his dreams.

There has been enough death in this country. There has been enough over-incarceration. It is time now that we make the dream real and we through our legislative efforts, as illustrated by state after state, can now follow suit, reduce our prison populations, lower crime, save taxpayer money, and more effectively herald the highest ideals of our country. Thank you.

RICHARD DURBIN: Thank you, Senator Booker. Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago.

LUIS GUTIERREZ: Thank you Chairman Durbin, ranking member Cruz, for inviting me to testify at this hearing on the current state of civil and human rights in the United States. And thank you, Senator Durbin, for advocating for justice and equality. I have always valued your advice and counsel, your leadership on the Judiciary Committee and as chairman of this subcommittee has contributed greatly to our nation and to protecting the civil rights of all of us, and I came here to say thank you.

Before I begin, I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. I think we can all agree that the loss of life is a great tragedy. As a parent, I especially want to say to the parents that I'm so sorry for your loss.

In the wake of the grand jury decisions to not indict the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, communities throughout the country have taken to the streets to protest. Many are deeply dissatisfied with decisions not to prosecute the police officers in Ferguson and Staten Island, and transparently examine their actions and the circumstances that led to the deaths of two unarmed black men.

The protests also exposed an equally disturbing issue: that the killings of Brown and Gardner are not an isolated issue. I believe the visceral reaction around the country is because these cases represent the countless young men who are treated unjustly by the police and many question their ability to receive justice through the current court system. These deaths expose gaps in our criminal justice system, in particular the grand jury process, and the inherent conflict in bringing charges against law enforcement. Clearly we have more work to do to build trust between communities and law enforcement, and our system of justice.

African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system overall. Racial profiling, condoned officially or unofficially by some in law enforcement, forces blacks and Latinos to contend with the criminal justice system more frequently and in a completely different way than many others in our society. Minority communities have a higher prosecution rate, and at the post-conviction stage sentencing orders tend to be harsher among minority defendants.

All too often, Latinos and blacks are victims of excessive use of force at the hands of rogue police officers. The issue is only exacerbated when local and state police departments are equipped with military equipment, as was the case in Ferguson, Missouri this past summer. The cycle continues, as we saw just last week when grand juries, guided by prosecutors who work on a daily basis with the police, failed to even call for a trial in open court. It is not surprising that the system breeds mistrust.

This vicious cycle not only affects individuals, but also affects our African American and Latino communities as a whole. When we see children like Michael Brown – Michael Brown and Eric Gardner and Trayvon Martin, we see our own families and our own loved ones. Ask any Latino or African American parent, whether they live in a suburb or in a housing project, and they will tell you they fear for their children's safety every time they leave the house.

Rather than thinking of the police as public servants who will protect the safety of their children, too often they think of local police as one of the hardships their children have to face. I think only of my daughter Jessica, who was stopped because she was driving in a too nice of a car. She was with her friends, in her own neighborhood. Her mom and dad apparently made the mistake of living in a neighborhood they can afford to live in, not one the police officer thought she should be living in.

Or when I was stopped, and refused admission to this very capitol complex, early in my year, because as the Capitol Police officer said, I didn't look like a Congressman. Too many have faced profiling, subtle and explicit, annoying and yes potentially dangerous when the profiler has a badge or has a gun.

I respect and appreciate the hard work that law enforcement officers do to keep our communities safe. We have worked to get more cops on the street, to invest in violence reduction programs, to reduce the number of guns in our communities that often target police officers, and to make sure we honor and pay police officers for the dangerous and often thankless work police officers do.

I am also proud to be an original co-sponsor of the End Racial Profiling Act, which I think is clearly and sorely needed. With regard to the revised profiling guidelines issued yesterday by the Department of Justice, I am deeply disappointed they did not close significant loopholes especially as they pertain to Department of Homeland Security, which will allow whole sections of America's largest law enforcement entities, including Customs, Border Patrol, and Transportation Security Administration to continue to profile many innocent Americans. I am also perplexed and disheartened that the new guidance applies only to federal agents, but exempts local, county, and state law enforcement.

Civil and human rights today in America continues to be a work in progress. Thanks to the leadership of Chairman Durbin and many of my colleagues, including those seated with me today, we are able to celebrate the strides we have made to create a more equal and just nation for all, and chart the course of continued progress for the future. But it is tempered by knowing that we cannot rest in the pursuit of justice and fairness, especially in the face of tragic and needless loss of life.

We have come a long way. Senator Booker is a testament to that. My buddy Keith is a testament to that. I hope to be a testament to that. Let's continue to do the good work. I thank you for your wonderful leadership, Senator Durbin.

RICHARD DURBIN: Thanks, Congressman Gutierrez. Congressman Ellison of Minnesota.

KEITH ELLISON: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much, also thank you to the ranking member, also special thanks to my fellow Minnesotans Senator Klobuchar and Senator Franken, and the entire panel, and of course I was very moved by the words of my fellow panelists, they were amazing, and I want to say ditto, everything they said.

Last week, 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein was run over by a man in an SUV, and that bumper sticker on his car said Islam is worse than ebola. But today, I'm not here to talk and focus on private hate crimes and discrimination although that deserves all the attention that we can muster. Today I'd like to talk about the discrimination that happens at the hands of state actors. I think we should shine a light on all forms of discrimination but I think that the events that we've seen over the last few weeks demonstrate how very important it is for the state, and people who act on behalf of the state, to get it right.

People have a legitimate, higher expectation of people who operate on behalf of the state. Our government is a democratic government, and it's undergirded by constitution, and the people have every right to believe that the government is there to protect the general welfare. And that makes it all the more disappointing when people who operate on behalf of the state fail to live up to that expectation. People have a right to believe that they will be dealt with justly and fairly by the state, but when the state violates people's rights, it's fair for people to wonder, who's going to protect my rights if the state will not?

And that's why people are particularly incensed by encounters between citizens and law enforcement. People are grateful for law enforcement, we believe in law enforcement, I am grateful for law enforcement, and I know people who are in law enforcement, most of them go into it because they want to help people, but when they fail, and when excessive force is employed, it is incredibly disappointing, and it shakes people's confidence in what the state is supposed to do for them, which is to protect them and to promote their welfare.

You know, the injustice we've seen is not new. It's not the first time the police have been videotaped using excessive force. None of us can ever forget Rodney King. It's not the first time people died in police custody. And it isn't the first time that a grand jury has vetoed justice. Why are people walking around with their hands up saying I can't breathe? Why are people saying, Don't shoot? Why are they proclaiming these things all over cities in America. It is because of a long train of abuses, not one particular case. People who want to argue over the nuance of one recent case in the news or another are free to do so, but no one can deny the unmistakeable pattern between police and community, particularly black community, and then, in that community.

We could talk about Eric Gardner and Michael Brown, but what about, what about Tamir Rice, 12 years old? What about Darren Hunt, who was, had a toy? What about Rodney King? And by the way, not only is this a long train of abuse, it goes back further even than the Kerner Commission report, which said, our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal. Fifty years ago, we were dealing with this same issue, and it is on us today, and we must make a call to action to reverse this trend, so that every American, all Americans, can feel that the government really is liberty and justice for all.

So instead of a system of justice that works for some, it works for some, it doesn't work for all. This injustice takes place within a social and economic context and I have to say, that when Officer Wilson confronted Michael Brown on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, the interaction did not take place in a vacuum. Ferguson's – Ferguson, Missouri's unemployment rate is almost 13 percent, over double the national average. The number of poor people in Ferguson doubled over the last ten years. In 2012, almost all of Ferguson's neighborhoods had a poverty rate of over 20 percent.

The fact is, if we respond by ordering body cams, ordering police cameras, this will be good steps. If we have grand jury reform, if we require that there are preliminary hearings in these officer-involved shootings so we can have more transparency, these will all be good things, but they will not stop the pattern unless we deal with the structural economic abandonment of cities like Ferguson. We cannot continue to solve our economic and social problems with criminal justice solutions.

The fact that our low income and minority communities are over-policed and under-protected is the spark, but poverty and economic deprivation is the kindling, and that's what lights the flame. I say yes again to body cams and all types of reforms but please, let us not forget that investing in infrastructure, education, public job programs, and providing for social supports which help people stay away from the hardest aspects of an unfair economy are essential. You do not sell loosies on the streets of Staten Island if you are making a livable wage.

We know that we have an inequality problem when the CEO of Walmart makes over $12,000 an hour and the average Walmart worker makes $8.48, and the CEO of McDonald's makes $9,200 an hour and a cashier makes $8.25. So, please, do not forget that dealing with the economic deprivation that kindles these situations is incredibly important. It's important in the recent cases, it will be important in the future.

I'd now like to turn my attention just for a moment to talk about the problems that affect the Muslim community in particular. Societal discrimination is real, I have been a direct, uh, victim of it myself. In my own state only a few days ago, a county party chairman called Muslims parasites and said they should be fragged. That meant, means to kill them violently.

A state senator in Oklahoma said that American Muslims are a cancer in our nation that needs cutting out. So when we arrive at how the state deals with this Muslim population, we know that we're already dealing with a situation in which so many in the law enforcement community see the Muslim community as a security problem, not fully-fleshed members of our community here to make a contribution. And so I too was disappointed in the guidance that was recently issued by the Department of Justice and believe that at no time can we have a system of justice in which someone's race or religion or what they're wearing can justify engagement by law enforcement.

Law enforcement should engage citizens when there is some articulable suspicion that that person might commit a specific crime, and that should be the basis of the engagement. Until we say that racial profiling, religious profiling is actually bad law enforcement, we will continue to bother people and engage people who have nothing to do with any wrongdoing, and we will miss people who are up to no good and were harmless.

DOUG MCVAY: You just heard Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey; Representative Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois; and Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, testifying before the Senate Judiciary SubCommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, chaired by Senator Richard Durbin.

The Senate will shortly adjourn, to reconvene in January, under Republican leadership. The new head of the Judiciary Committee will most likely be Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Grassley is a drug warrior and an unreconstructed prohibitionist. The subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights and human rights will be led by its current ranking Republican, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. There have never been two people less deserving and less qualified to hold those posts.

Now finally – mark your calendars. December 17th is the 100th anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Act, the day the US began its 100 year long drug war – its century of lies. On that day, people in towns and cities around the nation will hold rallies and other events at local courthouses to call for an end to prohibition. You can get involved by emailing the Drug Truth Network's executive producer Dean Becker, he's dean @ drug truth dot net.

And that's it for this week. I'm Doug McVay and this was Century of Lies. Thank you for listening. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network. We'll be back next week with more news and commentary on the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the drug truth network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!